The True Opiate of the Masses

Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.
-Czeslaw Milosz


Why Should We Pray For The Police? (and by extension, the entire city)


Why should we pray for the Police?  This is not an abstract question.  For the second year in a row, my city’s Police Service have asked for 52 congregations to pray for them.  Each congregation signs up for a week and has assigned prayers for each day.  The idea is that every day of the year there are intentional intercessors praying for the Police, the communities they serve in, and the city at large.

So why should we participate?  And why should we participate with an abundance of glad enthusiasm?  I’ll offer four thoughts:

We were asked to pray.  Praying for the police is not an idea cooked up by religious leaders of our city.  Chief Devon Clunis has put out the request himself.  A Christian man himself, and one who sees faith and work necessarily related, he has risked ridicule and criticism in order to put out this plea.  He says he believes in prayer.  He also says he believes in action.  He is wise enough to know that to pray does not mean to abscond from other ways of participating.  But prayer is key.  Prayer empowers work and it is in itself a work.  According to Chief Clunis, Winnipeg has had a 14% drop in crime overall.  But there is more to do.  So we’ve been asked.  If we had a friend who made themselves vulnerable enough to ask for our prayers, we’d be remiss if we didn’t.  Our Police Chief has asked us.

We’ve been commanded to pray.  As Christians, we are commanded to honour and respect our civic leaders.  Both the Apostles Peter and Paul make this abundantly clear.  The New Testament also commands us to pray for all people, specially mentioned are those in a position to affect the civic life of others.  This means more than just the police certainly not less than them.  So this is not new.  To pray for those in authority, those who make concrete difference in our public life, is to by extension pray for the good of everyone.  We are praying for the good of our entire city when we pray for Winnipeg Police.  A command like this is general but we in this city have been given a specific call to obey it.  Christians can often forget about the wider world around us.  We can fall into the trap of praying only for our own concerns or maybe even our own lives.  We have to listen to God’s commands to cast our vision further than our own problems and situations.

There is great need for prayer.  Every large city has its issues.  Our city has its problems and recently attention has been given to this.  There is poverty, crime, violence, distrust between communities and the list goes on.  We don’t need to have all the answers in order to ask God to heal, bless, and restore Winnipeg.  Chief Clunis has made clear that he believes in crime reduction through community development.  When specific prayer requests are given to the churches from the Police Service, much of them are along the lines of prayer for troubled communities and the root causes of crime.  There is also the need to pray for police officers themselves.  They put themselves in danger often and need safety.  Police are also sinners and far from perfect.  There is need for greater justice in how they police this city.  There is great need for prayer.

This is why we’re here.   Winnipeg is a city with troubles.  Winnipeg is also a city with things going for it.  It is a difficult place to live for some.  We should want it to become a better place to live for all.  There is no better parallel then when Jeremiah wrote instructions to God’s People while they were in exile in Babylon.  Living in troubled times, on the margins of their culture, they were tempted to withdraw into their own religious bubble.  Perhaps they felt tempted to throw their hands up and see the world around them in a “hell-in-a-handbasket” way.  No! said God through Jeremiah.  They were to get involved, make their lives there, and work to the betterment of all their neighbours.  Seek the welfare of the city, they were told, which meant working for the prosperity, safety, and flourishing of the wider community.  And pray to the LORD on its behalf they were commanded (hear this echoing in Peter & Paul?).  As God’s People in Winnipeg in 2015, we are to participate and pray as well.  The city (through the Police Chief’s leadership) is even asking us to.  Why should we pray for the Police?  Because they are an instrument of God for social betterment.  Why should we pray for the communities served by them?  Because we are a part of those communities.  Why should we pray for the Police and the good of the entire city?  Because, like the Babylonian Exiles, we have been placed by God here in Winnipeg for HIs purposes.  It is the reason we’re here.

Winnipeg The Racist? A Response

racism-2One of Canada’s foremost news and cultural magazines, Maclean’s, has published a story by former Winnipegger, Nancy MacDonald, in which it is claimed that Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada.  How racism can be objectively measured I do not know.  Nevertheless, as MacDonald builds her case it is a painful read.  For someone who has lived their entire life in Winnipeg, with all the benefit of membership in a demographic least likely to experience racism, it brought home to me what many Winnipeggers live with every day.  Fear, violence, dehumanizing prejudice, and loss of hope.

One does not need to have Christian faith to be able to see clearly the problem or to grieve over it.  Many of our neighbours, regardless of their beliefs, are able to bring wise commentary.  We should listen and learn wherever wisdom can be found.  But what can the Christian worldview bring that is unique in terms of response?  Here are some humble suggestions:

We can appreciate and value the authorities over us.  We are to do this, and to pray for themno matter what our leaders are like but sometimes good leadership makes it a pleasure.  Our new mayor, Brian Bowman, should be commended for not dodging, blame-shifting, excuse-making, and buck-passing.  He addressed the city alongside many civic and aboriginal leaders and set the right tone.  Words will need now to be backed up by real leadership – but words are often the beginning of action.  Authority flows to those who take responsibility and it flees from those who make excuses and blame others.  Our leaders, at least for the present, are earning trust.  We should give it.  And let’s pray for them.

 Let us recognize basis for the dignity of all.  Many people in our world value equality and the rights that flow from a shared humanity.  Less appreciated is that classical Christianity has given the world the firmest basis for this.  Even wise atheists can recognize this.  Christianity teaches that all persons are created in the image of God.  This is not something merited by birthplace, sex/gender, culture, or status.  It is also something that, although tarnished, can not be lost.  It means that dignity, respect, and protection must be sought for all without exception.  Perhaps less popular is the clear teaching that we are all, though image-bearers, completely sinful.  There is no one more or less advantaged in this.  There is no one better than another – no not even one.  This is the great equalizer – both individually and culturally.  Just as our individual sins give us no reason to look down on another, our collective sinfulness ought to humble us too.  European cultural failures and virtues are no greater than those of African or Aboriginal cultures.  There is difference and there is overlap but we are no better than each other.  Universal sinfulness may not be fashionable on the marketplace of ideas, but it does help to give a firm foundation for the equality of all.  And it humbles us.

Realize why we were placed in Winnipeg – Service and Prayer.  Nothing in life is by accident if God is King of the world and the Author of all history.  This means that Christians who live in Winnipeg were placed in Winnipeg.  A purpose must be in the mind of God.  Why does he want us here?  There is no better parallel than when God’s People (Israel) are sent into exile in Babylon.  While seeking to live as a minority in a pagan city, tempted to withdraw into their own little religious bubble of concerns, the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter, giving instruction.  Its content is as relevant now as it was then.  They are not to retreat from being part of the larger community, the city, though they live with many different from them.  They are to participate in the wider community and to love it.  God’s People are to love the city they’ve been placed in.  Pivotal is the command:  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  “Seek the welfare” means to seek, desire, work for the prosperity, peace, well-being, safety of every one of their neighbours – no matter who they are.  And they must “pray”.  Not just prayer for their own concerns and interests which is such an easy trap to fall into.  They are to pray so that their city – far from perfect – can become a better place for all.  The Christian church today is not Israel, and Winnipeg isn’t Babylon, but the command still stands and applies for us.  We have been placed in this troubled city for a purpose – to serve and to pray.

Violence? Religion?

violence religion

Above is a submachine gun with the French words – Ceci n’est pas une religion.  It’s a play on Magritte’s famous The Treachery of Images – but that is an art history lesson for another day.

The image (which I wish I could cite the artists for) is undoubtably circulated as comment on recent attacks in Paris by extremists.  It is meant to sever the link between an ideal of religion and violence in the name of that religion.  But is it true?  Does violence really have nothing to do with religion?

I think we are deceiving ourselves if we say it doesn’t.  Religion can fuel violence.  Whether it is a primary cause of violence is another matter.  We can not, however, say that it has nothing to do with violence.  Religious people have caused violence.  Sometimes, their religion serves as an inspiration for their violence even if it is not the only one.

As a Christian it would be silly for me to say one belief system has a monopoly on violent acts.  But what I can say, humbly but confidently, is that Christian faith makes no room for violence in the name of God.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written,“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  Romans 12:9

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.  1 Peter 3:9

True Christianity, does not, can not endorse violence in the name of itself.  Other religions may, however, and it is folly to assert that they don’t.  History is filled with religious violence.  History is filled with religious violence wearing a Christian gloss.

This is not to say there is not place for defensive violence.  Christianity has a rich history of pacifism – of which I am not a part.  There may be, and I would argue that there is, a place for Christians to serve the common good by being a police officer, let’s say.  But one does not need to be a strict pacifist to hold to the truth that authentic, apostolic, Jesus Christianity leaves no room for retaliation, vengeance, aggression, or defence of our God’s honour.

But it is possible that many religions do.  We must be even more careful then, to flee from false religion and embrace the Gospel.

Authority and Responsibility

“Authority naturally flows to those who take responsibility. Authority routinely flees those who seek to blame others.”  Douglas Wilson

I heard it said once by a wise, old church elder that authority and responsibility are like train tracks.  Like the two iron rails they run parallel and if they are separated there will be disfunction.

Assuming authority without taking responsibility creates tyrants.  All authority will be illegitimate and turn to bullying.

Likewise, if responsibility is taken – if the buck stops with someone – then their authority should be honoured.  True authority does not need to be demanded.

train tracks

Be A Good Neighbour

We must love our neighbours.  This is a foundational command of Jesus and an obligation of every one of his followers.  It has always been so but maybe today it is especially important.  Our world is broken and full of hostility.  We live in an age where people, via social media, are so quick to give offence.  Or to take offence, and then quickly tell the world, via the same social media, how offended they are.  So we must love our neighbours.  Really love them.  But what does that require?

I could expand on this myself but in situations like this I like to defer to one greater than I.  Here is John Calvin’s encouragement to love our neighbours:

John Calvin by Titian (whom my wife insists is pronounced 'Tish-ian' but I prefer 'Tij-ian') was born July 10th, 1509.

John Calvin by Titian (whom my wife insists is pronounced ‘Tish-ian’ but I prefer ‘Tij-ian’)

“God not only forbids us to be murderers, but also prescribes that everyone should study faithfully to defend the life of his neighbor, and practically to declare that it is dear to him. . . . There are, consequently, two parts in the Commandment, — first, that we should not vex, or oppress, or be at enmity with any; and secondly, that we should not only live at peace with men, without exciting quarrels, but also should aid, as far as we can, the miserable who are unjustly oppressed, and should endeavour to resist the wicked, lest they should injure men as they list.”  

John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 5: Harmony of the Law, Part III


Think carefully on what is explained here.  How are we to love our neighbours?

-We must not murder them.

-We must defend their lives and their right to live in safety.

-We must be heard to say (declare) that their lives are dear to us.  We have to be vocal in our culture about the value of each and every human life.

-We shouldn’t antagonize or hold grudges.

-We must not pick fights with them.

-We must assume the best of them.

-We must help them, as much as we can, to be free from what holds them back (oppresses them).

-We must protect them from those who would hurt them (the wicked).

Touch this Mountain…

The idea that everyone is strong enough to bear immediate contact with God is false, and conceivable only by an age that has forgotten what it means to stand in the direct ray of divine power, that substitutes religious ‘experience’ for the overwhelming reality of God’s presence.  Romano Guardini, The Lord.


from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907

from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907

Also…  Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it.  Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.  Ex 19:12

You cannot see my face, for man shall not see my face and live.  Ex 33:20